Image of Florida news screen shot about medical marijuana legalization
 
Florida's noneuphoric-medical-marijuana law cleared a major legal hurdle Wednesday when a judge in Tallahassee upheld it, which allows the state to begin licensing marijuana growers this summer.
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Florida Administrative Hearings Judge David Watkins rejected claims by an Orange County nursery that the state's proposed rules and regulations were unfairly developed to give advantage to bigger, politically connected nurseries to win the five regional medical-marijuana-growing licenses the law allows.
 
As a result, the Florida Department of Health can file the rules as "final" and begin soliciting applications for the licenses within three weeks, provided Baywood Nurseries of Apopka does not appeal Watkins' decision.
 
Lawyers for Baywood did not immediately return calls for comment Wednesday.
 
Backers of the limited medical-marijuana law were ecstatic.
 
"It's about time we all moved forward on this," said Seth Hyman, a medical-marijuana advocate from Weston who wants the medicine for his daughter. "It's been too long, and the patients of Florida continue to suffer, which includes my little 9-year-old-daughter, Rebecca."
 
Florida may now start creating a statewide medical-marijuana program that so far has only been proposed. The program, as written, allows five companies to grow low-THC marijuana, extract an oil and sell it as medicine for people who suffer from intractable epilepsy and several other debilitating conditions.
 
The law was approved by the 2014 Florida Legislature and went into effect last July 1. But the department's efforts to write rules and regulations have bogged down in bureaucracy and legal challenges for nearly a year. Last fall Watkins sided with a challenger, throwing out much of the department's first attempt at writing rules.
 
Baywood challenged the department's second attempt.
 
Even barring any additional legal challenges — which remain possible — it is not entirely clear how quickly the marijuana oil, sometimes known by a popular nickname "Charlotte's Web," might be available.
 
In a statement after the ruling, the Department of Health said, "The department remains committed to ensuring safe and efficient access to this product for children with refractory epilepsy and patients with advanced cancer. We are moving swiftly to facilitate access to the product before the end of the year."
 
The Department of Health can start accepting applications for licenses as soon as 20 days from now. Then there is a 21-day window for qualified growers — in business at least 30 years, with capacity for at least 400,000 plants — to apply for the regional licenses to grow in Southeast, Southwest, Central, Northwest and Northeast Florida.
 
Some of the financial requirements are daunting, so the possibility exists that the department might get only one qualified application in some regions, suggested Louis Rotundo, lobbyist for the Winter Park-based Florida Medical Cannabis Association. If that happens, the department could issue that license immediately. Otherwise, the department has up to 90 days to pick the winning applicants.
 
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, who sponsored a House version of the bill last year, said he expects the Department of Health to act quickly.
 
"I want to see medicine in the hands of needy Floridians," Gaetz said.
 
Once the licenses are awarded, the growers will have to obtain marijuana seeds or seedlings. Kerry Herndon, owner of Kerry's Nursery in Apopka, said it is "tight but doable" to have oil available for medicine 90 days after seedlings arrive, but the optimum time could be up to 160 days.
 
Herndon, who plans to immediately apply for a license, does not expect any more legal delays. He said losing applicants might file lawsuits after the licenses are issued, but by then the winning growers would already be growing plants.
 
"I understand about everyone getting a chance," to challenge the process, he said. "But you're talking about a year now, and sick children, and it's time. It's time."
 
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